ATLANTA — Drew Brees went for the win.
He wound up with a loss.
Brees’ pass in the end zone was picked off by Falcons linebacker Deion Jones, who made a soaring grab with 1:25 remaining to preserve Atlanta’s 20-17 victory over the New Orleans Saints on Thursday night.
Brees has made a lot of great throws in his 17-year career.
This is one he wanted back.
“It wasn’t worth taking the risk,” Brees said. “I should have checked down. It’s unfortunate.”
Give some credit to Jones. Isolated on tight end Josh Hill, he leaped as high as he could, reached up even higher to grab the ball and managed to hang on even when he landed flat on his back.
“I pretty much had the tight end by myself,” Jones said. “He looked back, I looked back and the ball was right there.”
The Saints offense took a huge blow on its first possession. Rookie sensation Alvin Kamara took a shot to the helmet — from Jones, no less — and staggered off the field with a concussion.
That deprived Brees of a backfield duo that has been a huge part of his success this season. With Mark Ingram forced to carry the load on his own, New Orleans largely abandoned one of the league’s top running games.
The Saints finished with just 50 yards on the ground — their lowest output of the season and breaking a streak of eight straight games with more than 100 yards. Brees was 26 of 35 for 271 yards and a pair of touchdown passes .
“Every loss is frustrating,” said Ingram, who had 12 carries for 49 yards. “Especially when you have control of the game and don’t finish it.”
The Saints’ last possession had plenty of key moments.
Brees connected with Michael Thomas on a 35-yard pass that quickly pushed New Orleans across midfield. On second-and-1 at the Atlanta 24, Ingram was stuffed for no gain. Then Brees threw an incompletion, and the Saints were also flagged for holding.
Instead of backing New Orleans up 10 yards, Falcons coach Dan Quinn declined the penalty. He figured the Saints would take the field goal, but coach Sean Payton decided to go for it on fourth down. Brees dove into the line on a sneak and picked up the first down, putting his team in good opposition to pull out the win.
Ted Ginn Jr. hauled in an 11-yard pass, hanging on to the ball despite a vicious hit by Ricardo Allen.
A short pass to Willie Snead IV failed to gain anything, setting up the decisive play of the game.
Brees was thinking touchdown.
Jones had other ideas, preventing the Saints (9-4) from building a three-game lead over the Falcons (8-5) with three weeks left in the regular season.
While Atlanta may have saved its season, New Orleans persevered through a rash of injuries that are sure to raise more outrage about playing games on Thursday nights.
The Saints lost not only Kamara, but an offensive lineman and three defensive starters.
In the end, it was too much to overcome.
“Proud of our guys,” Payton said. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”